What Do Food Claims Really Mean?

Food claims can be informative but may also be misleading.

Walking through the grocery store we are bombarded by terms and phrases used on food packaging. Low fat! Good source of fiber! 100 percent natural! The truth is that these terms can vary from informative and well-regulated to misleading or unhelpful. Here are some of the most common food claims you may encounter and what they really mean.

Fat and Sodium

Free — Sodium-free means less than 5 mg per serving. Fat-free means food has less than 0.5 g per serving. Beware that fat-free does not necessarily mean calorie-free, it's important not to interchange the two terms.

Low — Low-sodium means 140 mg or less sodium per serving. Low-fat means fewer than 3 g of fat per serving.

Reduced — This food has at least 25 percent less sodium or fat than the regular version.*

Light — This food has at least 50 percent less sodium or fat than the regular version.*

* Note: Foods that are labeled "reduced" or "light" products are being compared to a regular version of the product and reduced is therefore rarely synonymous with "low" or "free" varieties.

Zero trans fat — Foods that claim to have zero trans fat have less than 0.5 g trans fat per serving, but may still contain some of these harmful fats. If a product has partially hydrogenated oils included in the ingredient list then it still contains some trans fat.

Multigrain or Whole Grain?

Multigrain — Foods labeled multigrain contain more than one type of grain. However, there is no regulation on how much of each grain must be present, and the grains may not be heart-healthy whole grains.

Whole grain — Like multigrain, food claiming to be "made with whole grains" does not necessarily contain a large amount of these whole grains. Look for foods listed as "100 percent whole grain" instead.

Natural vs. Organic

Organic — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has specific requirements for food using the term "organic." Animal products labeled organic have not been given antibiotics or growth hormones. Plant products labeled organic are free of conventional pesticides and fertilizers made with synthetic chemicals. There are three levels of organic certification you will typically find in your local store:

  • 100 percent organic — Products are made entirely from organic ingredients.
  • Organic — At least 95 percent of the product is made with organic ingredients.
  • Made with organic ingredients — At least 70 percent of the ingredients used are organic.

Natural — The FDA does not have a formal definition for using the word "natural" in food. Manufacturers have wide discretion on using this term so long as food "does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances."

Nutrients

Fortified — Foods that are fortified have nutrients in addition to those that are naturally-occurring. This often makes them healthier than nonfortified foods.

Enriched — Enriched means that nutrients that have been lost during processing have been added back into food. They generally have fewer health benefits than foods that are fortified.

Good source of/provides/contains — The product must contain more than 10 percent but less than 20 percent of the recommended daily amount per serving.

High source of — Foods that claim to be a "high source" must contain at least 20 percent of the daily recommended amount per serving.

Other Claims

While the following food claims may certainly be true, they have little or no regulation and therefore they should be considered carefully:

  • Contains antioxidants
  • Kid-approved
  • Strengthens your immune system
  • Doctor-recommended
  • Green

Think critically when looking at food claims on the labels in the grocery store on your next visit. For more advice on what foods make up a healthy diet, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov.


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